Monday, November 19, 2012

What Not To Do

My last day in Ghent was consumed by attending conference sessions, listening to keynotes, chatting with colleagues, making contacts.  As is usual with academic conferences, the talks varied markedly.  The morning keynote was brilliant, a rethinking of intellectual property law in light of tenant rights, whereas the afternoon one was perhaps the craziest talk I’ve ever heard—and I mean crazy on the magnitude of “I’ve been kidnapped by aliens” crazy.  When the speaker (who will remain nameless) ended, there was dead silence in the audience.  I’m sure our collective expressions resembled those of the audience in Mel Brooks’ The Producers when the “Spring Time for Hitler” number concludes.  Yes, it was that bad, and all anyone could talk about afterwards.  Attendees huddled in corners, anxiously checking with each other for affirmation (“was that just as insane as I thought?”). 

One of the pleasures, however, of attending a conference in a gorgeously appointed thirteenth-century building is the sumptuousness of the setting.  When a paper bores, or in this instance, completely confuses, one can always study the delicate lines of gothic arches along the ceiling.  By far, this is the most spectacularly beautiful conference I have ever attended, between the building, the ancient university, and the town.  I've attached several photos to this post.

The crazy talk concluded the proceedings for Saturday, and at 6.00 we made our way to De Foyer Brasserie in the city center for the conference dinner.  The food was good (not great), but it was especially nice being able to chat at length with talented young scholars from across the EU.  Some were on post-doctoral fellowships; others were finishing their dissertations.  All were delightful.
Dinner concluded around 8.30, and I intended going back to my hotel for an early night.  

This is what not to do the night before an early-morning departure, especially if you’re (sigh) middle-aged: accept an invitation from European graduate students and young academics to go out pub-crawling.  Accept I did, and I had a wonderful time, but I rolled into my hotel around 2.30 a.m., which meant I had about three hours of sleep.  I was also a bit, um, worse for wear, and as I sit here on my flight, pounding away on my laptop, I am nursing a slight hangover.  This is not the best state for flying.

Security at Brussels Airport was intense because of the Mideast crisis.  I was pulled out of the line and questioned very hard.  I suppose my passport triggered this response since I hardly fit the “average” profile for an American traveler.  I had the conflicted reaction I often experience during these occasions, on the one hand, being grateful for the enhanced security, but then, on the other, wondering if it’s really necessary.

This return flight on United is as pleasant as the outbound flight was horrible.  We’re in a very comfortable wide-bodied jet with modern amenities.  The stewards are excellent, and lunch was actually quite good.  I had a vegetarian Indian lunch that was fresh and flavorful.  Go figure.

I will end this installment of my blog with a few passing observations about Belgium and the Netherlands.

  • ·      The Belgian draft horse graces drawings, designs, and objets.  While I appreciate the strong national attachment to this animal, I do wish the Belgians didn’t breed them largely for food these days
  • ·      Both in Belgium and the Netherlands, young people unconsciously switch to English when making statements of emphasis (“do you know what I mean?” or “is that okay?”), a linguistic pattern I find intriguing
  • ·      Speaking of English, it is almost universally spoken, especially in Amsterdam.  I met several international students in Amsterdam who complained of the impossibility of learning Dutch since locals immediate switch into English if they hear the slightest hesitation in fluency 
  • ·      Despite le crise, funding seems to be very good for doctoral and post-doctoral students in the EU; most of the students attending the conference were fully funded and many had generous grants for research and study abroad
  • ·      Similarly the conference itself was handsomely underwritten.  The conference was one of the outcomes of a five-year grant secured by a cohort at the University of Belgian to examine theories of literary authorship, and the grant is clearly generous by American standards given how we were wined and dined and feted
  • ·      Everyone I spoke to in the Netherlands and Belgium is relieved that Obama was elected; as for me, I’m relieved I won’t have to skulk around as I did during the Bush years pretending to be Canadian
  • ·      I was surprised at how many people, especially young women, still smoke despite strong government campaigns
  • ·      And, finally, public transportation is impressive.  Electric trams run in both Amsterdam and Ghent, although the canals limit their coverage.  A couple of times I hopped on trams in Amsterdam, and they were clean, efficient, and quiet, running every couple of minutes.  Indeed, the only problem is that they are so quiet one can be run over if unawares, as I warned by Franรงois.   Evidently, gormless tourists sometimes meet their demise in this fashion.  Fortunately, your devoted blogger was sufficiently careful as to avoid death by tram

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